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By Tim on May 21, 2016
Each year there is no clearer sign of the onset of spring in Rutland than the sight of the first newly-arrived Osprey perched on its nest; its white underside illuminated by the gentle March sun. For those of us lucky enough to have been involved in the Rutland Osprey Project for a number of years there has been one bird in particular whose return was especially significant and eagerly anticipated each year. He was often the first Osprey to return; his arrival signalling the start of another Osprey year at Rutland Water. The bird in question, of course, is 03(97); or Mr Rutland as he became better know. Sadly this year, he has failed to return.
In many ways the story of Mr Rutland epitomises the success of the Rutland Osprey Project. The irony in his nickname though is that he wasn’t from Rutland at all. 03 was one of eight young Ospreys collected from nests in northern Scotland by Roy Dennis in 1997. It was the second year of the translocation project and the eyes of the conservation world were once again on Rutland Water. 1996 – the first year of the project – had been mixed. Half of the birds translocated from Scotland hadn’t survived; and many people were sceptical about the project’s chances of success. 1997, therefore, was an incredibly important year.
Having been kept in specially-designed release pens on Lax Hill – a grand location overlooking Rutland Water Nature Reserve – 03 and seven other birds were released in late July. 03 made his first flight, described in the day’s monitoring notes as a ‘short, but surprisingly competent’, just after 8pm on 27th July, before landing on a nearby dead tree.
A week or so later the young Ospreys were enjoying their new-found freedom, exploring further and further from the release pens, and beginning to learn about their new home. It was here that my first encounter with 03 took place. I was a fifteen year-old volunteer and the sight of eight newly-released Ospreys flying around Lax Hill was awe-inspiring: something I will never forgot. Of course I didn’t realise the significance of 03 at the time, but he was one of the birds that myself and the team monitored that summer. On 4th September 03 set-off on his maiden flight to West Africa. Little did we know what an important bird he was to become.
Just under two years later, on June 14th 1999, 03 was sighted back in Rutland for the first time. His return, and that of another of the 1997 cohort, 08(97), signified that the project – the first of its kind in Europe – could work. During the course of that summer and the next, 03 and 08 both established territories. 08 took-over one of the artificial nests on the nature reserve, and 03 built a nest in the top of a stag-headed oak on private land close to the reservoir. Site B, as it later became known, was a thoroughly English setting for the Scottish Ospreys who was to become known as Mr Rutland.
In spring 2001 hopes were high that either 03 or 08 would breed. As we would come to expect, 03 didn’t disappoint. In mid-April he was joined at his nest by an unringed Scottish female. We speculated that she may have been an old breeder who had been ousted from a nest in Scotland by a younger bird; a defect in her right eye perhaps betraying her ageing years. Whatever the case, the fact that one of our translocated males had managed to attract a female who was heading north was an encouraging sign.
By early June the birds had been sitting on eggs for five-and-a-half weeks and we were eagerly watching the nests for signs of hatching. Then on the morning of 6th June we noticed a change in their behaviour. 03 arrived with a roach and flew straight to the nest with it. This would usually signify a change in incubation duties, but this time the female remained in the nest. She stood up and carefully inched her way to the side of the nest. She then tore off a piece of fish and delicately offered it down into the nest cup. It was clear that the first Osprey chick in central England for over 150 years had hatched. Two days later the team checked the contents of the nest with Roy Dennis, using poles and a mirror. They could clearly see the tiny chick and two unhatched eggs.
Six weeks later we visited the nest to ring the chick; a landmark moment for the project. We didn’t know it at the time, but that first youngster was one of 32 chicks that 03 would go on to father over the course of fifteen summers at Site B. When his unringed mate failed to return in 2003, 03 quickly attracted a new female to his nest. 05(00) was the first translocated female to breed in Rutland and it was fitting that she did so with 03. Together 03 and 05 raised a total of 17 chicks between 2003 and 2008, and they remain the most successful breeding pair in the Rutland colony.
Many of the offspring reared by 03 and 05 returned to Rutland in subsequent years and themselves became old favourites: most notably the two 2004 chicks, 5N(04) and 5R(04). 5N paired up with 03’s compatriot – and perennial bachelor 08(97) – and bred successfully in Manton Bay in 2007. Then when his sister and her mate moved to an off-site nest in 2009, 5R(04) took over the Manton Bay territory and bred successfully with Maya for the first time in 2010.
Sadly 05(00) failed to return in 2009, but she was quickly replaced by an unringed female. That though was only after an incredible battle between her and another female who we later discovered originated from Argyll in northern Scotland. The sight of two (presumably) Scottish female fighting over the Site B nest was another sure sign that the project was working.
The new unringed female and 03 formed another successful pairing and raised 14 chicks between 2009 and 2014. By spring last year 03’s legacy was becoming clear. Twelve of his offspring had returned and raised a total of 43 chicks between them. Furthermore, four of those 43 had then also gone on to breed successfully. So aside from being a grandfather many times over, 03(97) was also a great-grandfather to 15 young Ospreys.
The natural world can be a harsh place and 03’s ageing years suddenly became apparent in April last year. As usual 03 had been the first Osprey to return to Rutland; reclaiming his regal nest for the fifteenth time. Soon afterwards he was joined by his mate, and within two weeks they were incubating a clutch of eggs. Then the drama began.
Site B has been a sought-after nest ever since 2001 and, over the years, 03 often had to repel attempts to oust him by young males eager to breed. This, we are sure, was the reason that he returned earlier and earlier each spring. 03 usually had little trouble defending his nest, but 2015 was a different story. One of his grandsons, 51(11) suddenly set his sights on Site B. This young male was incredibly aggressive and it quickly became apparent that he was too much of a match for ageing 03. Within a matter of days 03 had been usurped from the nest. He retreated to a regular haunt, Horn Mill Trout Farm, in an effort to regain his strength. Luckily for 03, help was at hand. Just as 51 was getting settled on the Site B nest, another Osprey – and another of 03’s grandsons – entered the fray. 30(10) was also attempting to breed for the first time and after some spectacular aerial battles he ousted 51 from Site B. 30’s unexpected intervention allowed 03 to return to Site B, and to our surprise, 30 made no further attempt to take-over the nest. Instead he retreated to an artificial nest, and 51 did the same. Things were back to normal at Site B, and soon afterwards the female laid a replacement clutch of eggs. Sadly, though, it soon became apparent that they weren’t viable and it wasn’t long before 03 and his mate gave up on them. Nevertheless they remained at Site B for the rest of the summer and we were hopeful that both would be back this spring.
Sadly, we now know that neither 03 nor his mate have returned. We always knew that it would happen one year, but we have become so accustomed to 03 defying the odds and making it back each spring, that we fully expected to see him in all his splendour this March. It is all the more sad that his mate has failed to return too. We do not know what has happened to either bird, but the perils of migration appear to have taken their toll.
Although it was desperately sad not to see 03 this spring, he has left behind an incredible legacy on the 20th anniversary of the Rutland Osprey Project. The latest chicks to hatch at the Manton Bay nest mean that he is now a grandfather 57 times over and a great-grandfather to 22 Ospreys. That tally is sure to increase over this coming summer – and for many years to come. I personally feel privileged to have shared eighteen summers with this wonderful Osprey. It is true to say that these birds become like old friends, and it was always a thrill to see him back at his nest each spring. I know that John Wright who has studied 03 more closely that anyone through his fabulous artwork and photographs – just a fraction of which we have included on this post – feels the same; as do the hundreds of other people who have enjoyed monitoring the Site B nest over the years – or perhaps even watched 03 fishing from the Rutland Belle or at Horn Mill Trout Farm.
It is fitting that 03’s place at Site B has been taken by one of his grandsons, 30(10) this spring. 30 has failed to attract a mate this year, but we are sure that it won’t be long before he follows his grandfather’s lead. Who knows, maybe he’ll be the first Osprey back in Rutland next spring?
By Tim on December 22, 2015
When a juvenile Osprey leaves Rutland Water on its first migration, many threats await. Long crossings of the Bay of Biscay and the vast and unforgiving Sahara are two natural hazards that must be overcome, but fishing nets and hunters are very real dangers too. Over the years satellite tracking and ringing studies have shown that both environmental and anthropogenic factors have resulted in the death of young Ospreys on migration. Getting to the fish-rich waters of West Africa is a long and demanding journey, but arriving there safely is only part of the story. Recent research shows that surviving for 18 months in West Africa can be just as challenging.
Since 2001 more than 30% of young Ospreys that have fledged from nests in the Rutland Water area have made it back to the UK, but what happens to the 60-70% of birds who fail to make it home? In most cases we simply don’t know. However, there is always a glimmer of hope that we will discover the fate of lost birds, because all of the juveniles in the Rutland population are ringed. The first recovery of a Rutland-ringed bird was made by a farmer in Guinea in 1998. He found the bird, which had been released at Rutland Water the previous year, dying in the corner of a field. Later that evening, as he was preparing the bird for the pot he noticed the rings on its legs, and in his words, ‘knew it to be on a mission’. He eventually managed to get news of his find to the British Embassy who passed the details on to the BTO.
More recently, satellite tracking studies have shown that many young Ospreys die during their first year in West Africa. Many young birds are chased away from the best wintering sites by experienced adult birds defending their patch, and as such, often get pushed into poorer quality areas where they are more likely to come to grief. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that wintering Ospreys are often very approachable. Not only do they perch in prominent places, but they will often tolerate a close approach. This is perfectly exemplified by the most recent ring recovery of a Rutland bird.
A few weeks ago, we received notification that 4J(13), a female that fledged from the Site B nest in 2013, has been hunted and killed over 5000km away in the Ivory Coast. The BTO recovery had contact details of the person who had submitted the report and so I sent an e-mail to try and find out more.
Over the weekend I received a reply from Koffi Roger Yeboue. He explained that the bird was killed by a hunter in an area of forest beside the ABI lagoon in the Adiaké region of south-east Ivory Coast. The hunter who killed the bird gave the following explanation:
“Not far from my field, in the forest area, there is a big tree. During the month of December 2014 I noticed that this bird comes at the end of the day to sleep in that tree. Always the same tree. So in the last weekend of December 2014, I decided to kill it. This day, I waited it for a long time. It was around 18:30 UT when it came. I killed it. Then I noticed he was wearing two rings: a metal ring and a plastic ring. I was scared because I had never seen a bird with rings!!! I got the rings but I could not eat this bird. People have told me that other birds wearing rings were killed in the area. It seems that these birds go fishing in the lagoon all the day and come to sleep in the forest .I am so confused. If I had seen the rings, I would never killed this bird. It is necessary to find another ring system visible by hunters.”
By December 2014, 4J would have been in West Africa for over a year, but the hunter’s description suggests that it may have only just started using this particular roosting site. The fact that it returned there each night is exactly what we have learned to expect of wintering Ospreys; but in this case, it sealed the bird’s fate. Like the farmer in Guinea, when the hunter noticed the rings, he realised the significance of the bird; and it was then that he enlisted the help of Koffi to try and track down where it was from.
The death of 4J mirrors that of AW, the satellite-tagged bird that we lost in the Ivory Coast in February 2012. Although we were never able to prove it, we suspected at the time that the bird had been killed by a hunter. Improved satellite imagery of this area now shows that the bird’s last location was a small village.
The killing of 4J is a fate that probably befalls many wintering Ospreys in West Africa. In some areas the hunters are merely very poor people trying to survive, but in other areas this is not the case. The sentiments of the hunter; that he would not have killed the bird if he had known where it was from echo what local people have told me in Gambia and Senegal. If local people understood the remarkable journeys that migratory birds make, they would not kill them. That is why the education work we are undertaking in West Africa is so important. The Osprey Flyways Project aims to encourage communities to value and, thus, protect, migratory birds. A second email that I received from Koffi sums this up perfectly:
“I am very happy to read you again. It is a pleasure for me to note that through a death ringed bird, a bridge is thrown between continents and between people. 4J is dead, but 4J is still in our hearts. Since this story, my vision on birds has changed. These animals are messengers travelling from one country to another without visa, flight ticket or passport .What a fabulous destiny.
My next challenge will be to convince people to stop killing birds in the region and find the rings of dead birds.”
We wish Koffi well in his important mission and send our sincere thanks for taking the time to contact the BTO and then to reply to my e-mails. Another friendship created by the journey of an Osprey.
By Tim on May 25, 2015
Watching the Manton Bay chicks hatching over the past few days has been wonderful and a real privilege, but sadly, things haven’t gone so well at Site B.
In April we reported that 03(97) had reclaimed the nest after a long battle with two other males 51(11) and 30(10). The initial clutch of eggs were lost in the fighting, but a week later the female laid a second clutch (without being able to see into the nest we don’t know how many eggs, but there was at least one).
For two weeks the birds swapped incubation duties just as we would expect, with very few intrusions from the two males who had caused so much trouble previously. All seemed to be well again.
Then, without warning, and for no obvious reason, 03 and the female suddenly stopped incubating the eggs. There was no fighting, no intrusions, they just simply stopped sitting on the eggs one evening. That happened just over a week ago and since then there have been no indications that the female will attempt to lay again. Exactly what prompted the birds to give up on the second clutch of eggs is unclear, but the most likely explanation is that they weren’t viable in the first place. During the fighting for the nest, the female hardly ate at all and, as a result, was in very poor condition. Bearing this in mind, we were surprised that she laid the replacement clutch so quickly. It is likely that she was deficient in calcium and so perhaps the eggs shells of the second clutch were simply too thin? Whatever the case, the birds were obviously able to sense that they were not going to hatch, and so gave up incubating them.
It is very sad that 03 won’t be adding to his tally of 32 chicks this year, but his various offspring who are breeding, should help to make up for that. The three Manton Bay chicks have made 03 a grandfather for the 46th time; and with his offspring breeding at four other sites this year, that tally should exceed 50 quite easily within the next fortnight. If you add in that he has great grandsons breeding at a further two nests and a great granddaughter breeding at Cors Dyfi in Wales then you really start to realise just how important this one Osprey is.
If you would like to find out more about the legacy of 03(97) – or Mr Rutland – as he is often referred to, then make sure you tune in to BBC Springwatch tomorrow evening at 8pm on BBC 2 when there will be a special feature on the bird who, we hope you’ll agree, is the most important Osprey anywhere in either England or Wales.
By Tim on April 29, 2015
As Paul reported yesterday, things remain very settled at the Manton Bay nest and it is a relief to be able to report the same for Site B.
After 03(97) reclaimed his nest from 51(11) and 30(10) last week, we were hopeful that his mate would lay a replacement clutch. Having lost her eggs so early in the season there was every chance that this would happen, assuming that the intruding birds stayed away. Fortunately 51 has made only occasional visits to the nest; and has shown none of the aggression of a couple of weeks ago.
After several days of mating, it was exciting to see the female sitting low in the nest cup for the first time on Sunday evening; a sure sign that she was close to laying another egg. Next morning 03 flew to the nest and when the female took off, he settled down to incubate; confirming that the was an egg in the nest. Since then the two birds have been sharing incubation duties and there is every chance that, by now, the female will have laid a second egg. It is unlikely that she will produce a full clutch of three for a second time, but we won’t know for sure until early June, when, with a bit of luck, the chicks will appear over the edge of the nest. For now it is just great to see the birds incubating again.
Having been ousted from the Site B nest 51(11) has returned to his favoured haunts of last summer. Let’s hope a female joins him later this year. 30(10) has visited even less frequently suggesting that he too, has set his sights elsewhere.
By Tim on April 21, 2015
In recent years we have come to expect the unexpected with Ospreys. However, over the past fourteen summers the one site where we could almost guarantee that chicks would fledge successfully, has been Site B. This spring normal service appeared to have been resumed. As usual 03 was the first Osprey back in Rutland and he was joined by his mate of the past six summers on 24th March. A couple of weeks later, on 9th April, incubation began. It was like clockwork. Suddenly, though, everything changed.
On 12th April an intruding Osprey appeared at the nest. It alighted nearby and was identified as 51(11), a young male who had returned to Rutland for the first time in 2014. Last summer 51 was a frequent visitor to Site B but 03 usually gave him short shrift; chasing him away from the nest each time he ventured too close. For this reason we thought nothing of this initial intrusion. Fast forward 72 hours to Wednesday afternoon, though, and things looked very different. Amazingly 51 appeared to have ousted 03 from the nest.
Every time 03 tried to return he was chased off by 51. Not only that but 51 was becoming increasingly daring: bringing sticks and other nesting material to the nest; and even attempting to mate with the female.
On Thursday morning I was at Horn Mill Trout Farm and watched in amazement as 51 chased 03 round the fish farm and across the surrounding fields. There appeared no doubt that 51 was a fitter, stronger bird and had the measure of 03. After more than three hours of chasing 51 relented, allowing 03 to take refuge in a tree at the fish farm. He was clearly exhausted, but eventually mustered the energy to catch a trout in the pond in front of the photographic hide. Back at Site B, 51 returned to the nest triumphant, displaying high above the nest for fifteen minutes. Having finally descended down to the nest, he attempted to mate with the female. She rebuffed his advances, but did allow him to perch on the nest with her, and even watched as he nest scraped: a sure sign that he was winning her over.
By Friday morning it was status quo. 03 was again absent from the nest and 51 continued to nest build. The female was also spending less time sitting on the nest: it was clear that she was beginning to give up on the eggs. Having only eaten part of a fish on Tuesday evening she must’ve been very hungry too. 51 eventually responded to her incessant food-begging by catching a large trout in the reservoir. He brought it back to the nest and begun tucking into his catch. Then, just as it seemed he was preparing to take it to the nest, he dropped it! The female would remain hungry.
Meanwhile at Horn Mill 03 had caught another trout in the photographic pond and was eating it on a nearby willow tree. Having been chased away from Site B, the fish at Horn Mill were at least enabling him to recuperate.
With his strength restored 03 made another attempt to win his nest back. He appeared high over Site B, announcing his presence with a spectacular aerial display. 51 took off and the two birds headed south together. They didn’t return for more than an hour, and that allowed another contender to the enter the fray. 30(10) is a five-year old male who fledged from Manton Bay nest in 2010 – the first year that 5R(04) and Maya bred together. With 51 and 03 away squabbling, 30 landed close to the nest. Without a nest of his own he obviously saw this as his chance.
Eventually 03 returned from the south and headed for the nest. Moments later a second bird – 51 -appeared and dive-bombed him again. Cue more chasing over and around the nest. Eventually the three birds disappeared off to the east and the female was left in peace. By dark all three birds were still away.
On Saturday morning 03 was back at Horn Mill. He caught a trout and then ate most of the fish on a telegraph pole nearby. At 9am he headed back towards Site B and again displayed as he arrived at the nest. He almost lost his fish to a daring Red Kite, but with 51 away, 03 took his chance. He landed on the nest with the female and she snatched the fish from him. By now it was clear that at least one egg had been smashed and the others were irretrievably damaged. Although the female had continue to incubate them, 03’s behaviour confirmed that they were no longer viable. Under normal circumstances he would have settled down to incubate, but instead he stood on the edge of the nest, showing no inclination to sit on the eggs. He was clearly nervous but there was still no sign of the other birds. The female finished the tail end of the fish and returned to the nest. Watching the two birds together it seemed almost inconceivable what had taken place.
Another hour or so passed before the peace was suddenly shattered. A high-pitched intruder call ‘chip, chip’ from 03 alerted us to not one but two incoming Ospreys. It was 51 and 30. The birds made a bee-line for the nest and 30 dive-bombed so ferociously that 03 ended up on his back with talons raised. It was precursor to almost eight hours of fighting between the three birds. 03 would keep trying to return to the nest, but each time he was dive-bombed by either 51 or 30. The aerial acrobatics – diving, swooping and chasing – were spectacular and not necessarily all directed at 03. 30 and 51 were chasing each other too. It was difficult to keep track of what was happening but it seemed that, if anything, 30 was the strongest bird.
By evening 51 was back at Site B with the female but 30 and 03 showed no signs of letting up. The battle had merely relocated to Horn Mill where the birds were chasing each other over the ponds. We had no idea what the conclusion would be.
At 6am next morning all was quiet. The female was perched close to the nest but there was no sign of any of the males. Jamie Weston reported that 03 had caught a fish at Horn Mill and was eating it within sight of the photographic hide. After the exertions of the previous day, this was hardly surprising: he had been chased by 51 and 30 for over eight hours. Thankfully, the fish at Horn Mill were giving him the chance to recuperate.
Having regained his strength 03 ventured back to the nest and landed beside the female. Again he seemed nervous, but it was several hours before 51 re-appeared again. He arrived from the south and immediately dive-bombed 03 on the nest. The two birds disappeared out of sight. The fight was back on. Or was it?
Unlike the previous day 03 re-appeared soon afterwards and, in response to his mate’s food-begging, he flew to Horn Mill and caught another trout. This time he flew straight back to the nest and alighted on the T perch. Half an hour later 03 was still there when, suddenly, 51 was back. He dive-bombed 03, making him drop the fish! The female would go hungry again. Once again the two birds disappeared from view.
Yesterday morning (Monday) we expected the battle between 03 and 51 to re-commence. Instead 03 arrived back at the nest with another Horn Mill trout. At 8:30 he to flew to the nest and the female eagerly devoured the fish: she must have been very hungry. At 9:10 two intruding Ospreys appeared overhead, prompting 03 to fly to the nest and ‘chip’ loudly, with wings spread. He then took off and pursued the intruding birds away from the nest.
Over the course of the day 51 made several more visits to the nest, but he was far less aggressive than previous days; circling overhead but showing none of the aggression of previous days. Instead he spent most of the day perched in Burley Fishponds in the North Arm at Rutland Water. At last, everything seemed far more settled at the nest and 03 and the female mated several times. Having lost their clutch of eggs this early in the season, there is every chance that the female will re-lay, as long as 51 and 30 stay away, that is.
As for 03, he seems to have withstood the most vociferous and prolonged attempts to oust him that we have ever witnessed. At four and five years old respectively, 51 and 30 are in their prime and on several occasions we thought that 03’s days at Site B were numbered. Instead it seems that by being able to retreat to Horn Mill Trout Farm with its readily-available supply of fish, 03 was able to regain his strength and fight for the nest. Things may yet change again, but yesterday does suggest that 03 has put the young pretenders in their place. One thing we can be sure of, though, 03’s fifteenth summer at Site B has been far from predictable so far!
Thanks to John Wright for all his fantastic photos.